As deal-making goes, Donald Trump’s approach to negotiating with North Korea has resembled nothing so much as his purchase, in 1988, of New York’s Plaza Hotel: Rely on personal chemistry, ignore the advice of experts, neglect due diligence and then overpay for an investment that delivers no returns.
As with the Plaza, the result is about the same: a fiasco. Trump only avoided personal bankruptcy over the hotel thanks to the indulgence of his creditors. Who will bail out the United States — and at what price — for a bankrupt policy on the Korean Peninsula?
Vladimir Putin, maybe?
The Russian strongman certainly seemed to be angling for the role when he hosted Kim Jong-un at a summit in Vladivostok this week. “Kim himself asked me that I inform the U.S. side of his position about questions he has regarding what’s happening on the Korean Peninsula,” Putin said after the meeting, with about as much sincerity — and the same serpentine intent— as Kaa the python from “The Jungle Book.”
Russia is too cash-strapped to provide North Korea with much economic aid, which is what Kim badly needs now. But it already helps the North evade U.N. sanctions, and it can easily serve as Pyongyang’s protector on the Security Council, just as it does for Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime.
Moscow also wants to build a gas pipeline through North Korea to feed the energy needs of the South — all the better to open a new market, corrupt a few middlemen, weaken the U.S., and, should need arise, use energy for strategic blackmail.
It’s too soon to say whether Putin’s gambits will succeed. But it’s a measure of the scale of the administration’s failure that the Russian is in a strong position to try. At his February summit with Kim in Hanoi, Trump failed to get the deal that he unwisely hankered for, which was all-too predictable given the history and ambitions of the North Korean regime.
Trump then followed up that failure by continuing to coddle and flatter Kim. In March, he suspended large-scale military exercises with the South. Then he publicly canceled a package of tough North Korea-linked sanctions proposed by his own administration.
Weeks later, he tweeted: “I agree with Kim Jong Un of North Korea that our personal relationship remains very good, perhaps the term excellent would be even more accurate, and that a third Summit would be good in that we fully understand where we each stand.” On Friday, he thanked Putin for his mediation, adding: “I think we’re doing very well with North Korea.”
The result is a visible series of gaps, all of them exploitable by America’s adversaries: the gap between the president and his advisers; between Washington and Seoul; between the existing sanctions regime and the will to enforce them.
Also, the gap between Trump’s fantasies and the facts.
“Pyongyang is growing bolder in its sanctions evasion in part because many countries — and their banks, insurers and commodities traders — have long failed to properly enforce the measures,” The Washington Post’s Jeanne Whalen reported this week. “And some sanctions specialists worry that mixed signals from the Trump administration may further undermine global enforcement.”
Not least among those sanctions violators is Russia itself, though Putin is after larger game. Might another nuclear showdown on the Korean Peninsula put Russia in a position to negotiate the resolution — and win some sanctions relief for itself in the bargain? Creating crises in order to solve them is the usual method by which cunning dictatorships often win concessions from risk-averse democracies.
And another crisis seems to be coming. Satellites have found secret North Korean missile bases, and there are new indications of reprocessing activities at a nuclear site. Pyongyang has also test-fired a new weapon, started rebuilding a missile test site it had previously begun dismantling, demanded Mike Pompeo’s removal from nuclear talks and issued a year-end deadline for the U.S. to meet its terms.
This is not the behavior of a regime that thinks it has much to fear from the American president. It’s the behavior of a regime that has his number.
Meanwhile, the dictator that Trump can’t stop praising is the same man who had his half-brother murdered in plain sight and demanded a $2 million payment for the “medical care” of the late Otto Warmbier, the young American who was released from North Korea in a vegetative state. The right word for such behavior is evil. The right response is intensified economic pressure, military readiness and moral denunciation — the formula under which South Koreans prospered, peace was maintained, and the North largely contained for decades.
There may be no good answer to the challenge of North Korea, but there are plenty of bad ones. Trump seems eager to grasp them all. And unlike the bomb that was the Plaza deal, these ones could detonate.
Bret L. Stephens has been an Opinion columnist with The Times since April 2017. He won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary at The Wall Street Journal in 2013 and was previously editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post.